While growing up in Oak Park in the 1980s, it never crossed my mind that I could trace my family history very far. I didn’t feel rootless, but as an African-American the legacy of slavery presented huge obstacles; record keeping being a prime example. Slaves were considered property, leaving the intimate details of their lives pretty scarce. At the time, Alex Haley’s 1976 book “Roots” was one of the few examples I had regarding an African-American that accomplished the seemingly Herculean task of tracing his family.
The furthest I could trace my own ancestry was my mother’s maternal line. I grew up hearing colorful stories about their lives in Chicago during the turn-of-the-century, but the details became fuzzy as I got older. The only concrete evidence I had of their existence were a handful of black and white photographs and the knowledge that my great-grandmother Marion French Gray and her husband were buried in Forest Park’s Forest Home Cemetery in 1941.
My first attempt at digging into my family’s past was in 2007. For three years I obsessively sorted through a series of archived newspaper articles, books on Chicago history, census, birth, and death records, wills, and estate inventories. After a great deal of untangling and a serious game of connect the dots, I was led to my maternal family’s rural Kentucky roots, their migration to Chicago in May 1868, and a mountain of information about their lives on the city’s West Side. The result: my introduction to an extension of my family I knew nothing about, including their century-and-a-half legacy in Chicago.
Their story of migration begins with my great-great-great-grandfather.
Martin French was born a slave in 1812 in Mount Sterling, Kentucky, 30 miles east of Lexington. I got my first glimpse into his life while examining pages of handwritten Kentucky courthouse records dating back to the early 19th-century. Martin’s owner, Revolutionary War veteran James French, promised in his will dated Sept. 5, 1834, “To our daughter Theodosia Hood and her heirs I give … after the death of my wife the man slave Martin until the first day of January in the year 1856 then Martin to go out free.”
Martin’s name also appears in the 1854 estate inventory of James’ son Congressman Richard French, following the politician’s death. The seven-page document lists household items, farming equipment, livestock, plus the names and monetary values of the 20 slaves living at his Kenton County and Mount Sterling homesteads. Among those listed were Martin and his son David, my great-great-grandfather, both priced at $300. Seeing a dollar amount placed next to a family member’s name made slavery more real to me than any textbook or documentary ever had.
Earlier this summer, my brother Vernon and I spent the day searching for the mid-to-late 19th-century haunts of our ancestors on the West Side. Our tools: the 1909 city directory Plan of Renumbering the City of Chicago and several maps. Hayes School at 258 N. Leavitt St., where many of my relatives went to elementary school, is now a fenced-in, nondescript office building. Their former homes at the pre-renumbered addresses 705 Carroll Ave. and 1002 Walnut St. have long been demolished and have been replaced by a warehouse and another single family home. The only thing that seems to have remained in place is the Lake Street el line, which leads directly to my family’s home in Oak Park.
We ended the day at Forest Park’s Forest Home Cemetery, hoping we would be more successful. Martin was interred in a family plot June 30, 1878 in the historic cemetery that was known for its religious and ethnic tolerance when it was established in 1873 as Waldheim Cemetery. Not expecting to find a headstone for Martin, my brother and I were completely caught off guard by the roughly 10-foot stone obelisk that seemingly rose up from the ground as we searched for a silver dollar-sized grave marker. Among the three names written above the last name French was, “Martin M. 1812-1878.” During this family reunion of sorts, we stood there, mostly silent, coming to terms with almost two hundred years of our history towering over us.
Our trip through the West Side made me conscious of the fact that my relatives were eyewitnesses to a great deal of Chicago’s formidable history, something that never crossed my mind while growing up. The Great Chicago Fire in 1871, the opening of the el train in 1892, the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, and the creation of several major city parks – all of that would have been a part of their experience.
I also got a better idea of the social and political climate of their time while reading through the archives of several Chicago newspapers, including an article that appeared in the July 20, 1889 edition of the African-American newspaper, The Appeal. It covered a reception hosted by one of Martin’s son’s, John B. French in his West Side home; an event that included former Louisiana governor P.B.S. Pinchback among the many guests. “It took place Monday evening at the new and elegant residence of Mr. and Mrs. French, 1002 Walnut Street,” the article reported. “The spacious double parlors were beautifully decorated with cut flowers. About nine carriages containing the guests began to arrive and by 11 o’clock…”
From the archives of the Chicago Tribune I discovered that another son, Martin V. French, was on duty as a Chicago police officer during the infamous Haymarket Affair on May 4, 1886. I also learned more details about an unsettling story my uncle Richard first discovered a decade earlier. In effort to escape the unfairness of racism, my great-grandmother’s brother William, a graduate of both Hayes and West Division High School, gambled with his future by passing for white after leaving Chicago for California. This decision ended with the loss of his life and his secret exposed in major newspapers across the country in 1932.
Everything I’ve learned about my ancestors has brought me closer to both them and my community because the two are so deeply intertwined. I can now see my family’s footprints scattered throughout the area surrounding Oak Park, making me all the more pleased that I decided to seek them out.